Voting with Their Feet

Article excerpt

China hands don't like to miss the next big thing. These days many foreign Sinologists are consumed by speculation that the Chinese Communist Party is on its last legs. The hard times in the Chinese countryside will get harder, so the theory goes, which will lead to a peasant rebellion, and the party--swept up in the chaos of revolution-- will go the way of past dynasties. It's true that conditions in much of China's countryside are poor--and getting worse. But, as a former Chinese official familiar with the rural heartland, I don't think revolution is in the air.

Make no mistake: rural China faces a crisis. Today the amount of money that farmers have left after paying taxes and local fees is not enough to purchase seeds and fertilizer for the next planting. Farm incomes have shrunk, while production costs have skyrocketed. The countryside's basic infrastructure is a shambles, with education, health care and other public services existing in name only. Whereas 85 percent of rural children attended high school in the early 1980s, now the same percentage drop out during the first nine years of school. In the past the critically ill died in hospitals; today they die at home. Small- scale farms are failing, and they are pulling down millions of Chinese peasants with them.

Part of the problem is that the weight of the state rests more heavily on the countryside. China's farmers fork over almost three times the taxes paid by people in the nation's bustling urban centers. And Beijing often seems oblivious as to the best way to address this mounting crisis. What funding has been funneled to the countryside usually gets devoured by local officials, never reaching the people who need it most.

But Beijing need not fear a peasant army storming the gates. First, who would lead the revolution? In imperial China, rural society was governed by scholar-officials. When the people's interests were trampled on, it was these elites who would spearhead a rebellion. Today, however, the countryside's best and brightest have already moved to the cities. …